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How Toxic Masculinity Harms Boy’s and Men’s Mental Health

By Pam Dewey • masculinity, masculine, toxic masculinity, male stereotypes, masculine standards, stereotypical masculinity, boy role models, male mental health, mens mental health • July 29, 2021

You’ve likely heard the phrase, “Boys will be boys.” It’s often used to excuse behavior when boys act out. For example, a boy might have jumped off a too-tall piece of playground equipment, picked on their sibling, pushed a classmate down on the playground or thrown a ball too hard during dodgeball.

It may seem like a harmless thing to say, but using this phrase to excuse those behaviors perpetuates the ideas of toxic masculinity. According to Healthline, “Generally, toxic masculinity is an adherence to the limiting and potentially dangerous societal standards set for men and masculine-identifying people.” These stereotypical masculine standards include being:

  • Physically tough
  • Unemotional
  • Aggressive
  • Dominant
  • Unafraid of taking risks
  • Independent, without need for help
  • Heterosexual

But these traits aren’t exclusively masculine, and suggesting that acting this way is the only way to be a man limits how boys and men can construct their senses of self. It also suggests acting other than this is not masculine. The Verywell Mind states, “This does not mean that men aren’t caring, compassionate, or emotional, but we, as a society, don’t value these traits in men and that can lead men to believe these traits aren’t valuable.” So if a boy shows emotion or acts as a caretaker, society says he is doing something wrong and is not fulfilling his duties as a male.

The idea that boys must be heterosexual is also incredibly problematic for boys who may be gay, queer, bisexual, pansexual or asexual. Who they love or are attracted to automatically excludes them from being the right kind of man. This can be extremely hard on a young boy’s mental health.

Adhering to stereotypical masculine traits harms mental health

In an article for the Journal of Counseling Psychology, Y. Joel Wong and his colleagues reviewed 78 research samples involving 19,453 participants that focused on mental health and conforming to norms related to masculinity. Wong stated, “Men who strongly conformed to masculine norms were not only more likely to have poor mental health but also less likely to seek mental health treatment.” When boys and men conform to masculine norms, their mental health often suffers. For example, when a young boy is told it isn’t okay to cry, he learns that suppressing his feelings is how he becomes a man. But everyone needs to process their feelings to move forward, and ignoring emotions only means these feelings will come out in another way. Unfortunately, it also means they’re more likely to express these feelings in an unhealthy way.

Ignoring emotions can lead to violent behavior

In the Verywell Mind article, Mental Health Clinician Mack Exilus states, “Every behavior is connected to a need. One thing I’ve seen with men with anger issues and violent paths is that these are behaviors that are learned. A lot of times that violence or that anger is a way to protect vulnerability.” A boy may react violently because someone has hurt his feelings. Rather than showing vulnerability and saying his feelings were hurt, he hits someone. Society has conditioned him to ignore his feelings, so he doesn’t know how to channel his anger in a healthy way. He has also learned that anger is a masculine trait.

Young men who don’t know how to deal with their emotions may also lash out through physical or emotional abuse. Or they may turn it inward and face addiction, depression or even suicide. And since they’ve been conditioned not to ask for help, as Wong states, they’re far less likely to seek mental health treatment if they have depression, anger issues or addiction.

Teach boys to express their emotions

But boys can reject these ideas of toxic masculinity. Parents can teach their sons from an early age that it’s okay to express their emotions. Explain that there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” emotions. Tell them that we all feel different ways at different times, and it’s okay to feel sad, scared or hurt. Fraser Mental Health Professional Amber Max suggests one way to help kids cope is by naming and labeling what they’re feeling.

“Once kids name the feeling, like saying ‘I’m nervous or overwhelmed,’ that can ground them and help them feel better,” says Max. “That then leaves space to figure out how to address those feelings.”

Teach boys it’s okay to be vulnerable and ask for help

Teach your son that it’s okay to be vulnerable and ask for help by modeling this behavior. When you find yourself feeling frustrated, say, “I feel so frustrated.” Then stop, take some deep breaths and ask for help. This shows your son how to label his feelings, take a break and show vulnerability by asking for help.

Or, if your son asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, it’s okay to admit you don’t know. Then say, “Why don’t we look it up on the computer together, or let’s go find the answer together.” Your child learns that no one has all the answers, and sometimes, even adults need help.

Teach boys how to manage their anger

Teaching boys how to manage emotions like anger is an important skill. Fraser Sensory Inclusion Specialist Gina Gibson has an exercise that helps young children calm down when they feel angry or overwhelmed. During the exercise, a child holds out their hand and pretends each finger is a candle. Then they breathe in through their nose — like they’re smelling flowers — and breathe out long and slow to blow out each candle on each finger. After they blow out each candle, the child should count the finger, making sure to blow out all five candles. This forces children to focus on their body and breathing, rather than worrying about what made them angry.

For older boys, you can recommend they do an activity like going for a run, kicking a soccer ball around the yard, having a “rock out” dance party or simply taking a break and stepping away from the situation.

It’s also important to tell your son he can talk to you about his feelings. Let him know that if anything feels too big to handle on his own, you can talk about it and figure it out together.

And if you think your son might benefit from talking to a professional, you can reach out to your pediatrician, doctor or call the Fraser Hope Line at 612-446-HOPE (4673) to connect directly with a care advocate.